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To Think, To Feel, To Read

AS a teenager, I devoured the firmly realistic novels of Theodore Dreiser: "An American Tragedy," "Sister Carrie," "Jennie Gerhardt" - stories of young men and women trying to make their way in a materialistic, often corrupt, society. As I followed the course of their struggles, I remember coming across Dreiser's assertion that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who think and those who feel.This statement bothered me. To begin with, I couldn't figure out which kind of person I was. I didn't like the implications of either. I knew I was someone who did a lot of thinking, which made me suppose I belonged in the first category. But did that mean (as Dreiser seemed to imply) that I was cold and unfeeling? I didn't feel cold and unfeeling. On the other hand, however emotional and sensitive a soul I believed myself to be, I still couldn't see myself as a wild, impulsive creature who rushed throug h life without a thought for the consequences of her actions. What Dreiser seemed to be suggesting was a world divided between calculating cogitators who always knew the score, and hapless fools who went astray following their hysterical hearts. It struck me as a misleading dichotomy, and an insult to thinkers and feelers alike. Yet there is something oddly alluring in any statement that begins "There are two kinds of people in the world Although it will probably be a misleading statement, it is also likely to be an entertaining one. It may even tell us something about certain human tendencies, whether "the two kinds of people" happen to be extroverts and introverts, hippies and squares, jocks and nerds, optimists and pessimists, or romanticists and classicists. I continue to be surprised by how many lovers of fiction also fall into two categories: those who like Jane Austen and those who like Emily Bronte. I firmly believe that readers with the soundest literary instincts are those who love both Austen and Bronte. But there are a considerable number of people who adore the civilized intelligence of a Jane Austen novel but cannot fathom the wild emotions of any of the Brontes, let alone the relentless passions depicted in Emily's one novel. And there are other r eaders who respond deeply to the power of "Wuthering Heights" but simply do not see any point to Austen's nuanced comedies of manners. These "two schools" are reminiscent of Dreiser's thinkers and feelers - or, more precisely, they remind one of an observation by the 18th-century novelist Horace Walpole: "This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." Certainly, Austen's delectable sense of comedy depends on intelligence and judgment, while the brooding power of Bronte is a product of passion that calls forth a passionate response. The Brontes themselves - to judge from Charlotte's reaction - had little appreciation for what Austen herself called "the little bit [two inches wide] of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour." "Those who demand the stimulus of 'effects'; those who can see only by strong lights and shadows, will find her tame and uninteresting," warned George Henry Lewes - George Eliot's husband and a confirmed "Janeite": "Strong lights are unnecessary, true lights being at command." But Austen's subtle realism was lost on Joseph Conrad: "What is all this about Jane Austen?" he demanded. "What is there in her? What is it all about?" A single phrase can illustrate what it's all about. Take, for instance, this one, characterizing Austen's engaging, but high-handed heroine "Emma": "the real good-will of a mind delighted with its own ideas... ." Emma's good intentions are genuine, Austen informs us, but so is her conceit. Indeed, Austen suggests, good-will can be a product of complacency - which explains why good intentions do not always ensure good results, when the well-intentioned person is more caught up in her own ideas than in paying attention to the ideas and needs of people around her. Emma, like a good novelist and like Austen herself, loves to manipulate people in a benevolent way, to arrange their lives for them. Austen's ironic portrait of Emma - affectionate, but sternly objective - is an insightful piece of self-criticism, a spirited attempt at carrying out Robert Burns's wish that we all might "see ourselves as others see us." Intelligence, judgment, and a certain degree of detachment are its salient features. "Emma," after all, is a novel in which the man who turns out to be the right husband for the heroine is the only person in her world who not only recognizes her flaws but also points them out to her. WHAT a highly critical temperament like Jane Austen might have made of the Brontes, one does not know. (Certainly, she had enough interest in the excesses of the Gothic novel to lampoon that genre in "Northanger Abbey.") A number of Austen fans whom I've known, however, not only dislike "Wuthering Heights," but are also astonished when I tell them it has always been one of my favorite novels - along with "Emma,Pride and Prejudice," and "Jane Eyre." These easily shocked readers tend to consider themselves to have a "classical" sensibility. What they value in Austen is the sense of containment and decorum, an aura of superiority and aloofness that comes with sharing her ironic perspective. Austen, to such readers, is taste, judgment, class, and that elusive quality known as "Englishness." To such readers, the Brontes are over-emotional women who take themselves far too seriously. Charlotte's frank expression of feeling embarrasses them ("Jane Eyre" shocked quite a few of Charlotte's Victorian contemporaries), while Emily's unflinching portrayal of passion in "Wuthering Heights" appalls them. I first read "Wuthering Heights" when I was 10, before reading anything by Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens - let alone Theodore Dreiser! It was probably one of the first "grown-up" novels I ever read. For reasons difficult to understand much less explain, I became totally devoted to it. I read it at least 40 times within the first couple of years I knew it. Whole passages of description and dialogue rang in my ears. I would read favorite scenes aloud to anyone who still had patience to listen, and when no one was available, I'd act them out myself. I decided to make a movie of it when I grew up (with myself playing Catherine Earnshaw, of course) and was more than a little disappointed when I discovere d that there already was a movie. What drew me - and so many other readers - to this strange, violent story of headstrong, humorless people leading mixed up lives in the desolate Yorkshire moors? The story is not, in the usual sense, romantic (although the movie, with Laurence Olivier playing Heathcliff to Merle Oberon's Catherine, turned it into a more conventional romance). Until I saw the movie, it did not occur to me to imagine Heathcliff as an attractive, let alone handsome, character. Emily Bronts portrayal of him as a "fierce, pitiless, wolfish man" did not correspond to my romantic ideal. Nor was the beautiful, selfish, self-willed Catherine the kind of heroine with whom I normally identified. I saw myself as more of a "Jane Eyre," or perhaps something like Elizabeth Bennet of "Pride and Prejudice." I found Catherine's girlhood passion for Heathcliff quite inexplicable. Handsome, blond Edgar Linton struck me as vastly preferable. In years to come, I would read the novel from a different perspective - with more sympathy for the wild Earnshaws and less for the pallid Lintons. But even before then, I found myself captivated by the passions of these people, whom I neither liked nor felt myself to be like. On one level, it's the raw power of emotion that strikes a responsive chord - even the most rational of us can experience a catharsis from seeing such emotions depicted in a work of art. There is, however, something else that sets "Wuthering Heights and other great works of literature - quite apart from scores of Gothic novels with dark themes, brooding hero-villains, and impetuous heroines. "Wuthering Heights" is unstylized. WHILE Heathcliff may owe something to the Byronic hero, he is portrayed without a trace of Byronic glamour or self-aggrandizement. To a large extent, it's the objectivity of Emily Bronts portrayal of passion that makes this novel a masterpiece, just as it's the sympathetic warmth of Jane Austen's critical wit that rescues her novels from mere brittleness. In all great works of art (as in each one of us), feeling and thinking are intertwined, and the greater the work of art, the greater the intensity of both.

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